For the last couple of classes we've been discussing utilitarianism (U). U is a consequentialist doctrine, like ethical egoism, though it evaluates actions by the general good, not merely that of the agent. An action is right if and only if it leads to more happiness and less suffering than any other action that could be performed in the circumstances, with respect to everyone affected by the action. That is, we are obliged to do what leads to the most happiness for the most people (and animals, on some versions). Clearly, then, U is altruistic in form, since it requires us to sacrifice some of our own happiness if that will lead to greater happiness all round. The view is universalist, egalitarian, secular, monistic--and obviously onto something. Surely the goal of morality, at least in part, is to promote the general welfare, it might be thought, and that's what U prescribes. It comes as a surprise then that the theory encounters serious and principled problems, mainly revolving around questions of justice--but also concerning whether it is too morally demanding. Such criticisms are the topics for next week's class.
Roger won. But it wasn't his best tennis. Or was it? He managed to fight off seven set points against Novak. He was having an off day, but still he won the crucial points. Everyone has a bad day in tennis, but some people seem to be able to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. As I was playing the other day, it struck me that (a) tennis is an incredibly difficult game to master and (b) if you do anything even slightly wrong you won't hit the ball well. It has to be exact. Every shot has to be executed to perfection. There's no margin for error. In philosophy, too, there's no use in getting it a bit right. Any error, any sloppiness, and things go very wrong. Technique is all.
The topic this week was ethical egoism. What a terrible theory it is! An action is right if and only if it's in your own self interest. That means that helping others, with no benefit to self, is immoral. Rubbish. Particularly pathetic is the argument that apparently atruistic actions are really egoistic, since you get pleasure from doing good. This just conflates the object of a want with its consequences. You might as well argue that economic actions, like buying a television, are really altruistic, because someone else benefits, namely the people you buy it from. Motives are of several kinds: egoistic, altruistic, malicious, and self-destructive.
So far this term I've dispatched the three most popular ethical theories in America today--relativism, divine command theory, and egoism. It wasn't difficult work. So people go through their lives with ethical ideas that are patently erroneous. A few classes in high school would suffice to put them right, but somehow it never happens. You aren't supposed to criticize people's ethical opinions. That's sad.
In my seminar we discussed a paper by Galen Strawson, "Real Materialism". It's a stimulating paper that contends that experiences should be declared "physical" just as such, without benefit of reduction. We don't know enough about matter to rule out their being aspects of it--so why not call them "physical"? I appreciate Galen's premisses but I resist the conclusion. I quite agree that our conception of matter is sketchy at best; as John Foster puts it, matter is "inscrutable". I even see some force in the thesis that experiences constitute the intrinsic nature of matter (though I don't in the end agree with it); but I see no point in calling this aspect "physical". However, Galen gives a nice account of the Russellian thesis about the limitations of our knowledge of material reality. It's a rather Kantian thesis--with the underlying reality of matter noumenal and our knowledge only capturing its appearance to us.
My ontology seminar dealt with a paper by Chomsky about physics. He argues that since Newton the mechanical philosophy had to be abandoned, because of the remote operation of gravity, and that physics presents us with mysteries that mark our cognitive limits. As Hume observed, Newton drew the veil on some of nature’s mysteries only to reveal the deeper mysteries of nature. I find this view very congenial: not only is free will a mystery, or consciousness, but also a physical force like gravity. I think myself that mass, electricity and magnetism are pretty mysterious—we know only their manifestations. Physics tells us only the dispositional and structural properties of matter, not its intrinsic nature—as Russell long ago argued. Mysteries lurk everywhere, even in our “hardest” science. Since I regard consciousness as a form of matter, it isn’t surprising that it should be mysterious—since matter in general is mysterious. (This isn’t to say that the science isn’t perfectly ok, so far as it goes.)
In my ethics class divine command theory went the way of ethical relativism. There was some squirming from the students as God was removed from the grounds of ethics. Actually, I respect DC theory more than relativism, despite my atheism, because at least it’s a theory with some philosophically interesting aspects, and not simply a confusion of the descriptive and the normative. The problem with it is that you cannot base moral principles on a stipulation, no matter who the stipulating authority might be. That would make morality entirely arbitrary—as if it were like driving on the right rather than the left. God commands us to keep our promises because it is right to do so; it’s not that it’s right because he commands it (would it be right to break our promises on God’s say-so?). Socrates’ “Euthyphro argument”, that the gods love the holy because it’s holy and not because they love it—or that God commands the good because it is the good and not because he commands it—is one of the best arguments ever produced. It shows the power of clear analytical thought. What is amazing is that after over two thousand years his incontrovertible point hasn’t yet sunk in to everyone’s mind—with so many people still thinking that morality results from God’s naked will. God doesn’t create the good; he recognizes it (assuming he exists).
My review of Steven Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought just appeared in the New York Review of Books. There has been a three year hiatus since I last wrote for them, owing to the fact that the editors and I were at loggerheads over the philosophical content of a (positive) review I wrote of a book by Vincent Descombes on cognitive science and philosophy. The review was never published. The Pinker book is not very philosophical, so we haven’t had that kind of trouble this time. People do find pure philosophy very difficult, and writing about it for the general public is always a challenge. Anyway, the book is vintage Pinker—though I do have some reservations about the substance of some of the chapters. Check out the chapters on verbs and obscenity, in particular.
The US Open has given us some amazing tennis, with Roger Federer in his all-black tux outfit delivering his usual display of athletic and aesthetic brilliance. (I love that guy.) Novak Djokovic (I call him No-Joke) gave a marvelous impression of Sharapova and Nadal serving last night: she with her prissy jig and high bounces, he with his swerving sprint and the fussing with socks and shorts (needlessly plucking them from his crack before every serve). He’s a bloody good player, too, the young Serb—but also quite the comedian. My prediction: Fed and Djok in the final—the former wins. I find that watching tennis improves my game, by motor osmosis I guess. Yesterday I unleashed a distinctly Federerian backhand—at least that’s what it felt like.
Thanks to people for their comments. I agree that Soros’ success in predicting the markets sits ill with his Popperian suspicion of inductive knowledge of the future. I think we need to distinguish context-sensitivity in ethics from ethical relativism: in some contexts it may be right to break a promise, say, though not in others; but this has no tendency to show that what is right varies with what cultures take to be right (on this see any introductory ethics text, e.g. Julia Driver’s Ethics: The Fundamentals). As to my views on consciousness and the brain, I refer you to my many publications on that subject—no need to repeat old stuff here. Walking on water: I’ve always liked that story (“I believe”). Maybe Jesus was wearing some especially buoyant sandals at the time of the feat. A proto-paddle-boarder, I like to think. I saw a picture of my old friend Jennifer Anniston the other day, looking lovely, upright on a paddleboard—so even the stars are doing it.
I just finished the first week of the new semester. I'm teaching a course on ethics that I've never taught before, starting with ethical relativism. To my surprise, the students put up no resistance to the criticisms I made of relativism--despite the fact that students always tend to be relativists. I like to think they saw the force of reason and quietly abandoned their earlier beliefs. Maybe I've created a group of sensible moral universalists who can spread the message far and wide. Relativism is dead! Next is divine command theory, the attempt to base right and wrong in God's will. Surely some of them believe that view, as so many people do. I wonder how they will respond when god-based ethics also collapses in front of them. I'm looking forward to the demolition. I'm sure God will approve--since he is at least not confused. If God did exist, wouldn't he doubt his own existence?
I've been reading The Age of Fallibility by George Soros. It's nice to see that a big-shot financier and philanthropist has such a genuine interest in philosophy, and recognizes its importance. The faults in his philosophy stem mainly from his adherence to Karl Popper's concept of the open society. It's quite wrong to think that an open (i.e. good) society is defined as one that acknowledges the limits of human knowledge. We are perfectly justified in the confidence we place in science and indeed in our basic political values (freedom, tolerance, equality, etc); and this confidence does nothing to diminish our openness. By contrast, medieval Europe stressed the unknowability of God's nature and the limits of the human intellect, yet was as closed and repressive as can be. The difference between open and closed societies cannot be defined in a value-neutral way--as in the Popperian criterion of acknowledged fallibility. It must be defined by the specific values held, not by the way they are held--tentatively or confidently.
I've done a good bit of paddle-boarding this week, venturing into waves while standing. Altogether I've put in about twenty hours of practice and can now stay upright in rough water. I've even surfed some small waves here in Miami. People stare at me as if I'm walking on water. "Is that hard?" they ask. Yeah, I reply--takes a bit of practice. No one ever asks me if they can have a go. They just can't bear the thought of falling embarrassingly over--as I have quite a few times. Consequently, they never learn anything.
1. Objects are composed of stuff (“matter”, “energy”, “ectoplasm”). This stuff gives the substance of the object. Is it a substratum? We can say that, though it need not be unknowable. (Truisms quickly turn into absurdities here.) It is not a priori what kind of stuff the world contains, though it is a priori that it contains stuff of some sort. The same stuff can take many forms. An object is not identical to the stuff that composes it. Objects and stuff belong to different “categories”.
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I'm beginning this blog with a big chunk of metaphysics, written in the high Wittgensteinian style-a series of linked aphorisms. The ideas came to me in that way and it felt forced to try to present them in the usual discursive form. I usually don't write in this style, and vaguely disapprove of it. Partly because of the unorthodox format, finding an orthodox way to publish Principia Metaphysica proved something of a problem; so I publish it now, on the Web, so that it might see the light of day.
I intend to write a good deal about philosophy on this blog, generally as and when topics arise in my academic life. This semester I'm teaching a graduate seminar on ontology, which will have a lot of physics in it-as well as consciousness and meaning. No doubt I'll submit reports of how this is going. In the first class, next Tuesday, I'm going to present a paper in which I argue that traditional ontology isn't possible. It has long been assumed that there are three great categories of being-the physical, the mental, and the abstract-and that metaphysics is concerned to decide whether entities from each category exist, and whether one category can be reduced to the others. Thus we have materialism, idealism and Platonism-as well as dualism and nominalism. My contention is that the three categories are actually not well-defined, so that traditional ontology is asking improperly formed questions-which means that the standard doctrines of metaphysics are also not well-defined.
In addition to these philosophical disquisitions, I'll occasionally discuss other things that interest me-particularly sport. Since I just started stand-up paddle-boarding, they'll be a certain amount on that-how it compares to kayaking and surfing, say. This is a new sport that is currently sweeping the planet and I predict a strong future for it. The board is usually about twelve feet long and thirty inches wide; you stand on it and propel yourself forward with a canoe-style paddle (the kind with a blade at one end and T-grip at the other). It's easy enough in flat water, but the difficulty increases exponentially in rough water, which makes stand-up paddle surfing pretty challenging-there's a lot of falling off the board. As it happens, I just finished writing a book about sport, its mechanics, aesthetics, ethics and psychology; so this subject is very much on my mind.
I also intend to weigh in on various questions of ethics and politics, and cultural matters generally-especially if they have any philosophical ramifications. I might even tell you what I'm finding funny these days, on TV and elsewhere. So it won't all be dry serious stuff. Last night, say, I found 30 Rock and The Office especially amusing: but I won't try to repeat the jokes here. In fact, I might even play the role of TV critic once in a while. I'll be ranging from the intellectual to the athletic to the facetious.
My plan now is to write this blog in a diary-like form, with regular postings of weightier pieces-like the PM I'm kicking off with. And, of course, I welcome feedback and comments.